Monday, January 21, 2013

Dealing with negative events

As the saying goes, “Into each life, a little rain must fall.”  That is, you can’t go through life without having anything negative happening.
Let’s take this literally for a second.  Presumably, if you had outdoor plans, then a real rainstorm is a negative event.  Of course, you have a choice when faced with rain about how to keep it from making you feel too bad.  In general, there are two ways to deal with a negative event like rain.  
One possibility is to rethink the event to find the silver lining.  This kind of reappraisal turns what seems to be a negative into a positive (or at least something less negative).  In the case of a storm, you could focus on the benefits that the rain will bring to plants, flowers, and the environment.
A second possibility is to disengage from the situation. By focusing your attention elsewhere, you dull the negative impact of the event on yourself.  If the rainstorm disrupted an important life event, then you might have difficulty seeing the positive.  In that case, you might just try to ignore the negative event.
The way I have set up this discussion suggests that people use both strategies, but they engage them in different situations.  When an event is a little negative, then you may be more likely to reappraise the situation than to disengage from it.  When it is highly negative, though, you may be more likely to disengage than to reappraise.
A paper in the November, 2011 issue of Psychological Science by Gal Sheppes, Susanne Scheibe, Gaurav Suri, and James Gross explored this question.  In one study, participants were taught labels for both strategies while viewing a set of 8 pictures depicting negative events.  On half they were told to reappraise the pictures by finding another way to interpret what is happening while on half they were told to disengage by focusing on something else rather than event shown in the picture.  Participants were able to use these strategies easily, suggesting that they were already familiar with these modes of thinking about negative events.
After that, participants saw an additional set of 30 pictures showing negative scenes.  Some were only slightly negative, like a woman looking sad.  Others were highly negative, like a frightened woman bleeding from the face.  After seeing the picture briefly, participants had to decide whether they were going to reappraise the picture or disengage from it by pressing a button.  Then, they viewed the picture for another 5 seconds.  (In one study, participants talked about what they were thinking to ensure that they were really following the strategy they selected.)
The data came out as expected.  When faced with a minor negative event, people preferred to reappraise the situation than to disengage from it.  When faced with a major negative event, people preferred to disengage from the situation than to reappraise it. 
Although this choice of strategy may help to protect a person from negative mood, it does have a consequence.  Participants were shown the pictures afterward in a memory test.  People were much better able to remember the pictures when they reappraised them than when they disengaged from them.  So, if you are in a situation in which you need to remember a negative event and to learn from it, then you may need to focus on it rather than disengaging.